Afghan refugees housed in uncertified rentals in Lansing

Todd Heywood

Dozens of refugees who fled Afghanistan with US troops last summer are living in uninspected rental properties across Lansing, according to documents obtained and verified by City Pulse.

St. Vincent Catholic Charities, which serves as the city’s refugee resettlement agency, has been paying for months to house refugees in 18 hotel rooms at a southern hotel. The others are staying at at least 19 other properties across Lansing — including 11 whose rental certificates have been suspended and are in various stages of renewing their city certificates.

City Pulse obtained the addresses of local Afghan refugees in a document provided by an unidentified source familiar with the situation. This information was cross-checked with county property records to verify that everyone had valid rental certificates.

Of the 19 houses identified in the documents, 11 of them did not have valid rental certificates this week. Lansing planning director Brian McGrain said those certificates had been “put on hold” because they were awaiting finalization of permits or rental inspections, or were recently due for renewal.

Rental properties must be registered with the city. To do this, a landlord must complete the paperwork, pay an upfront fee, and then have the property inspected. If the property passes the inspection, a rental certificate is issued. Re-inspections are then required every three years.

If serious code or security issues are found, the city asks owners to fix them.

Landlords then sign documents certifying the repairs, but code compliance officers rarely reinspect properties. Instead, they’re held accountable by the honor code, McGrain said.

The corrective orders also set the property up for recertification in two years rather than three years.

McGrain said the system has bogged down over the past year, in part due to the pandemic and staff turnover, which has pushed some of those 11 properties into a “pending” status where they can legally be rented pending further inspection. It’s like the limbo of a rental certificate.

Judi Harris, director of refugee services at St. Vincent Catholic Charities, said potential landlords are vetted when they offer their properties for the agency’s use. The agency, however, does not review the status of these rental certifications or subsequent inspections.

“Just getting safe, affordable housing has always been a challenge,” Harris explained.

When the agency was tipped off that it would receive an influx of Afghan refugees as part of the U.S. pullout in Afghanistan last year, St. Vincent immediately raised concerns about the housing stock. Complicating the problem was the speed with which families were arriving in Greater Lansing.

“We will receive a notice on a Friday evening that you are having a family of four on Monday,” Harris told City Pulse last week. “There was no way to find accommodation right away.”

Harris said the temporary hotel accommodations helped begin to solve the logistical problem. She said those staying there this week should be moved to more permanent accommodation by May, but another 50 refugees from Afghanistan (and more from Ukraine) could soon arrive, she said.

Harris said St. Vincent — which is one of Michigan’s busiest refugee resettlement programs — has struggled since late August to find housing for those fleeing Afghanistan. The Agency welcomed 278 Afghan refugees through its program and into the Greater Lansing community this year. City Pulse does not identify their addresses to protect them from potential violence or harassment from anti-immigration organizations operating in the area.

In 2019, the Lansing State Journal reported that 38% of known rental properties in the city did not have valid rental certificates. Nearly half of its inhabitants then lived in rental buildings.

McGrain also mentioned concerns about affordability and availability in the housing market.

“That’s why this administration has supported affordable housing options at every opportunity,” he said. “Unfortunately, only one in five proposals we support for affordable housing get this approval from the state of Michigan. So, of course, we want affordable housing. We also want high-end housing. We need that mix to move on. move forward as a community.”

The average fair market rent in Lansing this year is $936 for a two-bedroom apartment — higher than last month’s median price of $791, according to a recent report by the Lansing State Journal.

More than half of the housing stock is owner-occupied, and the booming real estate market is putting additional economic pressure on rental properties as taxes and assessments rise.

The Lansing State Journal reported last month that rents have skyrocketed an average of 20% since 2017. That’s well above the rate of inflation currently hitting American wallets for items like groceries, household cleaning products, automobiles and more. Gasoline prices have also jumped dramatically since the invasion of Ukraine and subsequent restrictions on Russian oil imports.

The struggle to inspect and enforce rent compliance is an ongoing problem for city officials. In 2015, City Pulse uncovered a host of issues with the rental process in the city.

Lansing Mayor Andy Schor’s administration has grappled with the issue since 2018. A fatal fire at Lansing Housing Commission’s LaRoy Froh townhouses that summer resulted in an aggressive inspection regiment on all committee properties.

Schor said he has offered to hire an additional code compliance inspector to increase rental inspections for the upcoming budget year. He said city officials are working to ensure Afghan refugees are welcomed into the community with safe housing.

“It has been a priority for Lansing to accept and resettle Afghan refugees,” Schor said. “We want the agencies doing this work to put them in safe and permanent housing, but understand that there are times when they have to temporarily put them in hotels until that housing can be found. ‘Together, we want to make sure they are cared for and loved by our community.’

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